Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Locating India’s Mandi System in Historical and Contemporary Contexts

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Adnan Abbasi
Raya Tripathi

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Locating India’s Mandi System in Historical and Contemporary Contexts

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Global Views 360

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January 26, 2021

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2 Indian Farmers

2 Indian Farmers | Source: Ben Sutherland via Flickr

Since August 2020, the farmers of India are protesting against three new Agriculture bills (now acts) passed by the Parliament—one of the reasons stated is the potential of the new legislation affecting the Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC)’s Mandi system. APMC regulates and manages the agricultural market.

The farmers have covered some major highways around Delhi and have set up camps as well. They demand that the Mandi System should remain the same and want the new legislations to be unconditionally taken back.

Per contra the government claims the bills are good for farmers, Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister of India said about the farm bills “They will liberate them from the clutches of middlemen, and the Modi govt. is committed to keeping its promise of doubling farm income.”

The middleman here is perhaps the arhathiyas who facilitate and manage all kinds of procurement related transactions in the mandis between the seller (farmer) and the buyer (government or private traders) of the APMC Mandi. Arhathiyas thrive due to the current APMC Mandi system, therefore, in order to understand the current discourse on the farm bills, it is crucial to understand how the APMC Mandi system works and locate it in a broader historical as well as contemporary context, which is what this article attempts to do.

The History of APMC: From Royal Commission of 1928 to Implementation Post-Independence

Although, the institution of wholesale Mandis—as described by Harsh Damodaran in his The Indian Express column—is “since time immemorial,” the implementation of exclusively government controlled Mandis is a newer practice. The idea is grounded in the 1928 royal commission report on agriculture that mentioned the following on the need of a regulated market:

“The establishment of properly regulated markets should act as a powerful agent in bringing about a reform which is and much needed, primarily in the interests of the cultivator and secondarily, in that of all engaged in trade and commerce in India. From all parts of India, we received evidence of the disabilities under which the cultivator labours owing to the chaotic condition in which matters stand in respect of the weights and measures in general use in this country and of the hampering effect this has upon trade and commerce generally. Needless complications and unevenness in practice as between market and market tend to prejudice the interests of the cultivator.”

One of the first implementations of the government regulated agricultural markets—now known as APMC—is credited to Sir Chhotu Ram, a farmer leader and the then Development Minister in the provisional government of Punjab. The Punjab Agricultural Produce Markets Act, which sets up APMC in Punjab was initiated by him in 1939.

In the 1960’s, when India was a newly independent country, many of its citizens were starving due to food shortage. Adding on to the already existing hunger—droughts made the situation even worse. To fix this problem, the government started the Green Revolution, in which it tried to modernize the Indian agriculture. The Government took the help of advisors from the United States and introduced several reforms in agriculture. India had a food surplus during the Green revolution. The Indian Government decided to go back to the 1928 report and developed a nationwide food marketing system to ensure fair prices. The system differs from state to state. Farmers take their produce to wholesale markets called APMC Mandis to sell their produce to traders through open auctions with transparent pricing.

In the APMC Mandis—to protect farmer’s interests—the government fixes Minimum Support Prices (MSP)—a price floor—for some crops and makes arrangements from their purchase under the state account whenever prices fall below the support level.

The idea of MSP as well was implemented during the same period. Whereas its implementation is credited to the then-finance minister C Subramaniam, the idea is the brainchild of Dr Frank W Parker.

APMC System: Inefficiencies and Reforms

APMC system as well has got its own set of problems. The “golden period” for APMC markets lasted till around 1991. With time, there was a loss in growth in market facilities and by 2006, it had declined to less than one-fourth of the growth in crop output after which there was no further growth. This increased the problems of Indian farmers as market facilities did not keep pace with the increase in output and regulation did not allow farmers to sell outside APMC market.

The farmers were left with no choice but to seek the help of middlemen. Due to poor market infrastructure, more produce is sold outside markets than in APMC mandis. The net result was a system of interlocked transactions that robs farmers of their choice to decide to whom and where to sell, subjecting them to exploitation by middlemen.

Over time, APMC markets have been turned from infrastructure services to a source of revenue generation for the middlemen.

Furthermore, the market committee has excessive powers to give licences to the traders. A lot of licencing led to a 'licence Raj' kind of situation. The licensed commission agents started forming cartels, to collectively decide the prices at which they would or would not buy the produce from the farmers, so that the farmers aren’t left with any options—leading to creation of what supporters of the farm bill today call “mandi mafia.”

In the year 2003, the government brought some reforms allowing for better liberalization in the Model APMC Act, Indian Economic Service’s online Encyclopedia, Arthapedia, describes the reforms as:

“An efficient agricultural marketing is essential for the development of the agriculture sector as it provides outlets and incentives for increased production and contribute to the commercialization of subsistence farmers. Worldwide Governments have recognized the importance of liberalized agriculture markets. Keeping, this in view, Ministry of Agriculture formulated a model law on agricultural marketing - State Agricultural Produce Marketing (Development and Regulation) Act, 2003 and requested the state governments to suitably amend their respective APMC Acts for deregulation of the marketing system in India, to promote investment in marketing infrastructure, thereby motivating the corporate sector to undertake direct marketing and to facilitate a national  market.

The Model APMC Act, 2003 provided for the freedom of farmers to sell their produce. The farmers could sell their produce directly to the contract-sponsors or in the market set up by private individuals, consumers or producers. The Model Act also increases the competitiveness of the market of agricultural produce by allowing common registration of market intermediaries.”

The Model APMC Acts were implemented by some states, but not all.

When APMC was repealed: A look at Bihar

States like Punjab and Haryana, which have the richest farmers in the country, have the regulations play an important role in the industry. But Bihar, where markets were eliminated in 2006, has the poorest farmers in India. This clearly shows the failure of the removal of this system.

Before the abolition of the APMC Mandis, Bihar had 95 market yards, of which 54 had infrastructure such as covered yards, godowns and administrative buildings, weighbridges, and processing as well as grading units. In 2004-05, the state agricultural board earned 60 crore INR through taxes and spent 52 crore INR, of which 31% was on developing infrastructure. With no revenue to maintain it, that infrastructure is now in a dilapidated condition.

In a 2019 study by the National Council for Applied Economic Research, it was reported that in Bihar, there was an increase in the volatility of grain prices after 2006, which negatively affected the crop choices and decisions of farmers to adopt improved cultivation practices. It concluded, “Farmers are left to the mercy of traders who unscrupulously fix a lower price for agricultural produce that they buy from [them]. Inadequate market facilities and institutional arrangements are responsible for low price realisation and instability in prices.” Farmers who were in immediate need for money had to sell their produce at the price that was forced upon them by the private traders. Also, there were reportedly high storage costs at private warehouses.

A farmer from east Champaran, Somnath Singh, told Down To Earth, “Earlier we would get a good price for our produce but the situation has deteriorated after the abolishment of the APMC Act. The PACS simply refuse to buy our produce citing moisture; even if they procure them, they take months to pay the dues.”

APMC and Farm Act

Farmers marching to Delhi | Source: Randeep Maddoke via Wikimedia

Coming back to where we started—the farmers protests—right now, the farmers are sitting in the cold on the highways of Delhi, living in tents. They are being provided food by the langars in Gurudwaras and have received support from them. Several farmers in fact died since September—some in the protests; and others due to accidents, illness, or cold weather conditions.

One of the central demands as mentioned earlier is to let the APMC Mandi system stay as it was. Yet, one of the three Farm acts—Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act, creates free, unregulated trade spaces outside the markets. The act is actually creating two parallel markets, one being the regular mandis and the other, with free, unregulated trade.

According to data by NSSO, around 6% farmers get MSP (can be even more), who mostly sell their produce in state-government regulated mandis and 94% farmers sell outside mandis. Therefore, already the majority is selling outside the markets. Moreover, in the new act, there will be no tax outside APMC pushing more farmers to leave the mandis and opt for the trade markets, eventually leading to the collapse of the Mandi system.

However, we must remember, the markets outside APMC do not provide MSP—they work on the principles of supply and demand—therefore in case the prices fall to an extent making selling the produce loss making—there will be no safeguards—potentially leaving richer traders farmers to exploit economically vulnerable farmers.

Furthermore, the tax in the APMC Mandis is collected by the state government, if this system collapses, the states won’t be receiving any taxes from the sale of agricultural produce. Moreover, agriculture currently is in the state list, however, the new act gives the center the power to regulate the agriculture across India, making the federal structure of the country in question.

Talking about the arhtiyas (or the middlemen) who are projected as the adversaries of farmers by the government and the supporters of the Act, we have to remember that’s just one side of the story. As Chaba and Damodaran explain in their column on The Indian Express:

“The arhtiya isn’t a trader holding title to the grain bought from a farmer. He merely facilitates the transaction between a farmer and actual buyer, who may be a private trader, a processor, an exporter, or a government agency like the Food Corporation of India (FCI). That makes him more akin to a broker.

The arhtiya, however, also finances the farmer. That, plus his income from commission being dependent on the quantity and value of produce routed through him, aligns the arhtiya’s interests much more with those of the farmer.”

Therefore it is safe to conclude that the Farmers' Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act will create more problems than to solve them.

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July 19, 2021 12:00 PM

The Blasphemy Law of Pakistan and its Implications

In Pakistan, Blasphemy results in a capital punishment in majority of cases. It is perhaps considered a crime worse than terrorism. A crucial case in point is the fact that the Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court gave around 15 years jail term to two close aides of Hafiz Saeed—chief of the terrorist organization—Lashkar-e-Taiba—and mastermind behind 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—where at least 150 innocent people lost their lives.

Similarly, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi—Lashkar-e-Taiba’s operation commander and another important figure involved in the 2008 Mumbai attack—was sentenced to 15 years in jail period. Not to mention—this happened amidst the international pressure on Pakistan for letting terrorists to function and roam freely within their country.

While something as violent as terrorism is dealt with lenient punishments, there are draconian laws for blasphemy in the country. Moreover, one can be accused of committing blasphemy—doesn’t matter if they did it or not—and might not even face a fair trial.

This article discusses what are the blasphemy laws and what are their implications while looking at some specific cases.

What are Pakistan’s Blasphemy laws?

What's called Blasphemy law today has its origins in the colonial era. The “offences relating to religion” were introduced by British in 1860, and were later expanded in 1927. These were sections 295 and 295-A from the Indian Penal Code. The laws were made to avoid religious disturbances, insult religious beliefs, or intentionally destroy or desecrate a place or an object of worship. Under the 295 and 295-A, the convicted were to be given a jail term from one year to ten years—with or without a fine.

Pakistan ended up inheriting these laws after the partition of India in 1947.

The laws were amended in 1982 and another clause was added which prescribed life imprisonment for desecration of the Quran intentionally. Another clause was added in 1986 to punish blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad through imprisonment for life or death. These clauses, were added under General Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, in an order to make the laws more “pro-Islam.”

Since then, this law has often been used to persecute people from minority communities—such as the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Christians, and Hindus—they have been accused of blasphemy without much evidence.

Infamous cases and implications of blasphemy in Pakistan

One of the famous cases was of Asia Bibi, which grabbed international attention as well. Asia Noreen—known as Asia Bibi—was a Pakistani Christan and a farm laborer in Punjab province. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, was a brick laborer. A dispute with her Muslim neighbours turned into an accusation of blasphemy—leading to her arrest and imprisoned. There were a lot of protests in Pakistan, demanding death penalty for Asia Bibi.

Two politicians—Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti—who supported and tried to help Asia Bibi, were murdered. Taseer was shot by his own bodyguard named Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri in broad daylight. Qadri was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed in 2016. Mumtaz Qadri became a hero for millions and hardliners praised him as a martyr. He is regarded as a saint and a mausoleum has been built over his grave in his village near Islamabad, where even devotees come to offer prayers.

Asia Bibi was first sentenced to death by a trial court in 2010, however was later acquitted by the Supreme Court in a historic judgement of 2018. In 2019, Pakistan’s Supreme Court ruled that she was free to leave Pakistan and was given asylum in Canada where she moved along with her family.

Although after a long struggle, Asia Bibi still got justice and was able to start a new life—unfortunately many others didn’t. Many met with Mob Justice.

In 2017, a journalism student at a Pakistani University was lynched to death by fellow students in Mardan—in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The student—Mashal Khan—was a Shia Muslim and was falsely accused of blasphemy. The mob was enraged by a rumour according to which he had promoted the Ahmadi faith on Facebook. In a similar instance, a man named Tahrir Ahmad Naseem was killed by vigilantes in July last year for blasphemy. He was a former Ahmadi, and was in Peshawar Central Jail since 2018 for claiming to be a prophet. He was shot dead inside the courtroom during trial in the Peshawar Judicial Complex.

Furthermore, in a case similar to that of Asia Bibi, a Christian couple—Shahzad and Shama Maseeh—were accused of blasphemy as well. They were then beaten and burned alive by a mob in 2014. Shama was four months pregnant. The mob, which also included a local cleric, believed that the couple had burned some pages of the Quran along with some rubbish, although the couple’s family still denies this. Five people including the cleric were sentenced to death, while the eight others were given two years imprisonment.

Last year, former Foreign and Defense Minister Khawaja Asif as well was accused of blasphemy for merely stating that “all religions are equal.”

Why is this happening?

According to data by Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice, there have been 1549 known cases of serious blasphemy in the years 1987-2017, out of which 720 were Muslims, 516 Ahmadis, 238 Christians, 31 Hindus, and the rest 44 are unknown. 75 out of the total cases ended in the person being murdered before their trial.

There are 13 countries in the world which punish blasphemy by death penalty and Pakistan happens to be one of them. But unlike countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where they are executed judicially—as mentioned earlier—accused in Pakistan are often killed in mob violence or assassination. While Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to top in terms of the highest number of executions, most of them for sacrilege or crimes against Islam, Pakistan’s total ‘judiciary’ killings stand at zero.

The problem of this mob mentality in Pakistan, especially when it comes to religion, is actually deeply rooted in its constitution. The country’s aspiration to become a democracy as well as an Islamic state is in itself contradictory. The people want the right to freedom and expression and the hanging of a person committing blasphemy at the same time. The constitution denies criticism of Islam while claiming to allow freedom of speech and religion. The elevation of one religion over others in itself is principally undemocratic.

Another interesting point is the fact that the people supporting these ideas haven’t been aware of how things can backfire. Muhammad Din Taseer—father of Salman Taseer—supported Ilam Din, who murdered a Hindu publisher over blasphemy in 1929. An ancestor’s support for radicalism ended up in his own offspring being assassinated in the name of blasphemy.

Mental illness and blasphemy

In Pakistan, often some mentally ill people are punished to death by mobs for unknowingly ‘committing’ blasphemy. In 2012, a man widely reported by the media and police as ‘mentally unstable’ was arrested for blasphemy in Bahawalpur district, Punjab province. A mob gathered outside the police station, dragged him outside, and burned him to death. There have also been cases of misuse where such vulnerable individuals were subjected to sexual abuse and later accused of blasphemy by the abusers to cover up their crimes.

Such abuses towards mentally unsound people would have been a criminal case and the abusers would have been punished—unless they use the blasphemy law—as the mentally unstable victim cannot defend themselves.

Role of Anti-Terrorism courts

Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism courts were set up to ensure quick justice in cases such as terrorism, sectarian violence, targeted political killings, hijacking, kidnapping, extortion and even arms trafficking. Earlier gang rape was also included in it—but removed later.

They are also key to controlling mob attacks on blasphemy accused as such trials are held here.

Yet, these courts have been facing several problems due to lack of basic resources and understaffing. The posts of judges often remain vacant for months, and the state prosecutors complain of poor working conditions—with no offices, stationery, clerical staff or legal resources. These problems may have risen due to the fact that there are not sufficient funds allotted for the ATC infrastructure, one of the major challenges in Pakistan’s legal system. Due to this, these courts are not able to fulfill their primary objective—to provide ‘quick’ justice.

Moreover, these courts lack independence and are vulnerable to political influence—the judges are held accountable to the executive. Sometimes the witnesses often refuse to testify against the accused, as they fear assassination by terrorist groups the accused belongs to. The judges, state prosecutors and others also have personal security concerns which also lead to delays in trials.

Also, these courts deny terrorism suspects the right to equality before the law. They are not even tried in a public place with full defense and are not presumed innocent. Peshawar High Court advocate Ghulam Nabi even challenged the Anti-Terrorism (Amendment) Ordinance 2009 under Article 199 of the constitution in December 2009, saying that it violated basic human rights.

The blasphemy laws of Pakistan need to be repealed in today's Global civic society. People are fighting for equality everywhere around the globe. And now it is up to Pakistan to choose—whether to become a democracy or continue with a pseudo-democratic authoritarian regime which is based on extremist interpretation of religion.

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